Like thousands of his fellow veterans of America’s wars, Alfred Brown died waiting.
In 1945, when he was a 19-year-old soldier fighting in Italy, shrapnel from an enemy shell ripped into his abdomen. His wounds were so severe that he was twice administered last rites. When Brown came home, the government that had promised to care for its wounded veterans instead shorted him.
In the current American climate, with war constantly in our periphery, respect and reverence for veterans seems extremely relevant.
That’s why the results of Knight Ridder’s investigation caused so much controversy.
“What they revealed, in a series of articles published in newspapers across the Knight Ridder chain, was that poor and disabled veterans — as well as their widows — were being ill-served both by the government and by the nonprofit organizations that claimed to help them,” said James Asher, Knight Ridder’s investigative team leader.
The newspaper chain found the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs to be the main offender. Reporters Chris Adams and Alison Young filed story after story about fallen soldiers falling out of favor with the VA.
“Our reporters took on an agency that had largely been ignored, mounting an aggressive legal battle to force open the VA’s books,” Asher said. “We continued to publish a string of exclusives throughout the year, developing sources deep within the agency and unearthing never-before-released internal reports. We prompted both the agency and Congress to react.”
How did the VA react? According to Asher, nine days after a congressional hearing involving the office, the VA’s top benefits official sent out an ultimatum to the organization’s 57 regional offices to “read the articles, digest the underlying message and take action to ensure you and your people learn from these writings.”
The reaction appeared in sharp contrast to the initial response of the VA to Knight Ridder’s reporting, which appeared in periodicals across the country.
“The VA fought our reporters at every step, refusing to answer simple questions without weeks of delay, if it answered them at all,” said Asher. “Knight Ridder eventually sued the agency in federal court to pry open VA databases and records.”
It was a forceful move, but one that may have given numerous disabled veterans muscle in their war against the institution.
“It was a textbook case of aggressive Washington correspondence — and it went far beyond that,” Asher said. “Working with editors and reporters at Knight Ridder papers, our reporters helped localize the story for veterans and their families in individual markets scattered across the country. These efforts brought the story home in ways that would have been otherwise impossible.”